Memorization isn’t understanding, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad

Now that we can google every fact, formula, date, direction, definition and synonym, many of us deride memorization as a pointless exercise. Instead, we focus on building understanding, developing critical thinking and scaling Bloom’s Taxonomy.

To a large extent, I agree with this shift. I think our students are far better served by learning to reason, create, and communicate (and a host of other action verbs) than by learning to recite poems or regurgitate rote, easily accessible facts.

But sometimes, I think, a little memorization doesn’t hurt. Although my goal is deeper learning, sometimes I do tell students: Just memorize this!

Let me explain. I want my AP Macro students to understand the economic reasoning behind every graph, model and calculation we do. That’s why we build them together, using simulations, data, reasoning and relevant examples.

I’d be horrified if my students were simply drawing supply and demand graphs from a memorized picture, without really grasping why it is that quantity demanded falls as price rises.

And I’d be a pretty poor econ teacher if all I did was require students to memorize definitions of terms like inflation, unemployment and GDP.

But when we get to the 8th or 10th or 12th week of the semester, and a student still wants to label the axes “Supply and Demand” — don’t ask me what the curves would be named — I cannot start from scratch again. (Yes, this happened yesterday.)

And I think: OK, it is time to memorize this. Labeling economic graphs is not rocket science. It’s not nuanced or thought-provoking or open for debate. It is simply a matter of convention, and if you are studying economics, the sooner you know it, the better.

Labels aren’t the only example. I encourage students to memorize the supply and demand shifters; the formulas for calculating GDP, unemployment and inflation; the formulas for spending and banking multipliers.

This is not so I can test their ability to parrot back definitions, but so they can use these concepts to answer more meaningful questions, like “Why does the unemployment rate understate unemployment”? Or what would that 2-cent postage stamp from 1931 cost in today’s dollars?

It’s hard to apply a concept if you can’t remember what it is, in the same way it’s hard to drive a car if you don’t know which pedals are the gas and brakes. Sure, you can keep googling it, but your progress will be very slow.

I used to require my Civil Liberties students to memorize a few Supreme Court decisions, too. On the test, I would list the most compelling quotes, and I would ask them to name the case. Studying for those tests, in my opinion, helped them deeply internalize words like: It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.  

I secretly hope they still remember that one.

As with so much in education, the secret is not to go overboard in either direction. We still have too many classrooms where memorization is the end-goal, and we need to move away from that kind of instruction. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for mnemonics and flash cards.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. She is also Chief Educator-in-Residence at Quarter Zero. Visit NeverBore.org or like the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

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